24 December 2012 2012 nian 12 yue 24 hao

Epilogue: Sun

A maximum temperature of 39°C is forecast for Perth tomorrow, so it looks like being a hot Christmas. My long black winter coat is in a bag on the floor, amongst the boxes still waiting to be unpacked from our recent move. In China, I'd be wearing it right now, but in Australia I don't need it at all.

On Christmas Eve, ten years ago, I penned the first entry of this journal. A decade later, I would like to close with some highlights of "life after China": my past two years back on Australian soil.

Eight years in China. Well, not quite eight full years, and although I'm sure nobody would begrudge me a couple of extra months due to rounding error, I still tend to say "almost eight years". I know that such a number doesn't mean anything, but I'm secretly proud of how many years on put on the clock. Sure, I know some folk were there long before I was, and are still living and working there now (not linking to any blogs, but you know who you are!). Still, eight years is a long time — most of my twenties in fact — and it stands to reason that China has been a significant influence on my life. I learned a foreign language and culture, worked in jobs I would never have dreamed of doing in Australia, witnessed a society that's changing at a furious pace, and even ended bachelorhood.

But what do I have to show for it, apart from a garish green weblog that I virtually stopped updating after the first three years? China had already faded from my conscious mind within a week or two of returning to Perth. The craving for real Chinese food lasted a while longer, and for a period Yuxiang and I scoured Chinatown most weekends looking for authentic Northern or Sichuan cuisine. But sooner or later we stopped caring about that too, and settled into a quiet existance as permanent guests of my Mum and Dad...

"I wouldn't be able to stand living with my parents again!" is what people often said when they heard we were living at home. But after so many years overseas, I appreciated the opportunity to reconnect, and it gave Yuxiang a glimpse of how an Australian family lives. (I certainly learned a thing or two about Chinese home life during the year I stayed in Mr Zhu's apartment in Xining). Fortunately, Yuxiang and my parents got along splendidly.

A rare snap of the whole family, while my sister Jenny was back from London for a visit.

We definitely had the better side of the bargain. We paid nominal board and did a few chores, leaving my parents to do most of the cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Every now and then, when the mood struck us, one of us would cook a meal. When Yuxiang was on holiday from university we could always look forward to her fried dishes — usually far more food than necessary, yet we'd all keep eating until the bottom of the plates were almost visible and our stomachs were bulging!

When we moved in, we never expected that our stay with Mum and Dad would last two years, but it took a while just to get on our feet. I knew the kind of work I wanted to do, but I had no job and no connections. Yuxiang's visa granted her the right to work, but her Master of Laws degree — representing seven years of study — is largely useless here because the legal system is so different from China's. While I was wandering around the back streets of Xining and Beijing, my old friends from school had spent the years establishing their careers, buying their first home, and were now preparing to start families of their own. I suddenly felt as if my life in China had been nothing but a dream, and here I was waking up, the same 23-year-old almost fresh out of uni and still naive in the ways of the world.

And then to top it off, I went to see the people I used to work for (with whom I had kept in very infrequent contact over the years) and they said, "We have a job for you". So one sunny Monday morning I turned up for work at the same area on the same floor in the same building that I had left eight years ago. Everywhere I looked, I saw familiar faces. It was spooky!

But beyond the superficial similarities, my job is different, and I'm enjoying it a lot. Our branch has grown, and whereas I was once the only programmer, we now have a team of three developers. I've been proactive in seeking ways to make our work as a team more effective, mainly drawing on the Agile and Lean movements, and the changes have been very positive. But as much as that may sound like the dreaded "M" word, I'm also very clear about the direction I want to go in personally, which is not towards management, but deeper into software and computer science. I've been enthusiastically attending professional events, including some interstate conferences and workshops, as well as helping to organise a local meetup on the topic of functional programming.

During the summer that we arrived, Yuxiang did a bridging course at Murdoch University, and was accepted into their Juris Doctor programme the following year. She was even granted some academic standing (reduced number of units) in light of her past study. But reading and writing in a second language is not easy, so she is only studying part-time, with another one or two years still to go. The first few semesters were very challenging indeed, but she is slowly getting into the swing of it. Maybe she'll even start to enjoy herself soon, the same way that she thrived at university in China.

Between the stress of study, the demands of work, and the beguiling comfort of living at home, the social and cultural sphere is the only one that hasn't received much attention. But that's been a pattern in my life, partly deliberately, for the last 5 years. Living in remote Qinghai, I complained about the lack of intellectual stimulation, but in Beijing I started living more and more behind the closed doors of our apartment, and now back in Perth I don't even know what films are showing at the Somerville this year. This is a huge change from 10 years ago, when I actually started worrying about dropping out of Australian politics and culture before I even stepped on the plane. Why the change of attitude? Actually, I've touched on this before, but my definitive justification for a simple life is this: voluntarily abandoning such luxuries as theatre tickets and coffee with friends is better than having them suddenly taken away when we eventually, one day, need to make room in our life for a baby!

No, there is not an ETA for that yet, but having just moved into our own house a couple of weeks ago, it seems the time is ripe. Financially we were starting at zero when we moved to Australia, and it's only because we could stay with my parents and avoid renting that we saved enough in two years to afford a mortgage on our first home. It's a three bedroom unit in a quiet neighbourhood, 10 minutes drive to my parents home, and a pleasant 15 minutes walk to the train station. We've already launched into home improvement mode (Yuxiang did most of the work replanting the garden and repainting the kitchen), but overall we're very happy with it.

Yuxiang and I squint in the sun, in front of our newly purchased home.

Whatever the ties that kept me in China for eight years, they were soon severed when I left the country. HIV Resource China, the web project that I spent so much time on during my last year there and launched just before leaving, never got off the ground. An email every year or so is the most contact that I still have with friends I met there. On the other hand, we speak to Yuxiang's parents once a week on Skype, which is probably more often than when we were living in Beijing! We donated our computer to them when we left the country, and I think Skype is the only thing they use it for. Every time Yuxiang's brother visits them, he'll inadvertantly change something — unplug the microphone, or rearrange the desktop shortcuts — and they won't be able to connect to us anymore!

We went back to celebrate Spring Festival last January, which was lovely, and especially worth doing the first year I think, if only to reassure the family that we hadn't vanished from the earth completely. We won't be doing it again this year though, while we pay off our mortgage and furnish the house. Fortunately, on the last trip we brought back enough green tea see us through this year and well into 2013. Perhaps next time, Yuxiang's family can come visit us here in Australia (and bring more tea!).

Sharing a light snack with Yuxiang's family, to celebrate Spring Festival.

I'm still studying Chinese, focusing mainly on writing characters, which has always been my greatest weakness. I practise with the help of computer software based on the principle of spaced repetition, which is a bit like digital flashcards except that the machine knows which items I tend to forget, and shows them more frequently. For the first Christmas back in Australia, I bought myself a graphics tablet so that I could write naturally using a pen. Later, I transitioned to using my mobile phone instead, writing directly on the screen with a stylus. In fact, this was my main excuse for buying an iPhone! I'm using two different apps for two different purposes:

Screenshot of Anki for iPhone

Learning to write characters and learning to write words are two quite different tasks, which is why I use a specialised tool for each one. The great thing about having these on my phone is that anytime I have a few minutes I can pull it out and practice. I try to do a little every day, usually on the train to work. I've made modest but steady progress, which actually surprises me because I half expected to lose my motivation for studying Chinese after returning to Australia. That said, both Skritter and Anki keep statistics on the amount of time spent studying, and those numbers have been dropping month by month for the past two years! Each year I also enrol in the Chinese Proficiency Test, mainly as a way of monitoring how my language skills are faring now that I no longer use them on a daily basis. Last year I enrolled in Level 5, and would easily have passed except that I arrived late and missed the listening section of the exam. This year I could have attempted Level 6, but I was worried that my Chinese might be getting worse rather than improving, so I repeated Level 5. To my relief, I did just as well, or better, than last year.

It will be interesting to see what role China plays in the rest of my life. Will we live in China again? Will fluency in Chinese be a valuable asset, or just a lingua franca for chatting with my in-laws? When I look back at my life one day, will eight years in China seem like a turning point, or just an unexpected detour?

Last year Yuxiang and I spent a few days in Melbourne, and we found a great little restaurant near Chinatown called "Famous Hotpot". A few weeks ago I was in Melbourne again for a workshop, so I was on the lookout for good Chinese food. Walking around Prahran, I ended up in a tiny eatery called "China Family Dumpling". With a dish of chilli sauce and a bottle of vinegar on each table, it was just like dozens of similar small and nondescript restaurants that I have been to in China. Gazing out the window while I waited for my order, I couldn't help thinking of my early years in China, when I often ate in restaurants by myself, gradually learning to read menus and trying new dishes. Life in China was exciting, and challenging, and endlessly fascinating. But despite my fond memories, I don't feel the urge to return. In fact I would gladly live anywhere with Yuxiang: China, Australia, or another country altogether.

Besides, nostalgia would hardly be a good reason to move again! My experiences in China varied so much from the start to the end, that I know if I went back now it would be different yet again. Initially, I hesitated to write this Epilogue, fearing that it was an open invitation to sentimentality, but I seem to have emerged from the writing experience with only a few scratches. So it is without fanfare, nor any strong feelings of either sadness or joy that I close this chapter of my life, knowing that the next has already begun.

"I would gladly live anywhere with Yuxiang ..."

How well we know *that* feeling Todd! We feel so blessed that the two of you were able to make it back to Australia for our wedding.

We hope as time goes by that we will see more of each other. Must have you both over for dinner when we get back from Canberra ...

We also look forward to dropping by and "warming" your new home sometime soon too.

Here's to a wonderful New Year for us all.

With love & affection,
David & Clare
David Tehr
25.12.2012 , 15:17

Wow. The first time I found this blog was a few years ago. I checked back every few months, until I forgot for about 2 years. And now I randomly remembered to come back. For some reason this blog is fascinating. Will you keep posting?
Daniel [homepage]
20.02.2013 , 17:05

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